Thursday, September 15, 2011

Gotham City of Fools

The 'Gotham Tales' are stories about feigned madness, similar to the holy fools of Russia. They became associated with the village of Gotham ('goat ham') in Nottinghamshire about 1540.  The tales were about the escapades of the mad men (fools) and the first works was called "The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham'.

These tales were penned by A. B. of Phisicke Doctor with subsequent editions the word 'mad' being replaced with 'wise', and the myth of the Wise Men of Gotham was born.

It is believed the pen name was the author Andrew Borde, who, however, denied it. There were 20 tales all up from Gotham in Nottinghamshire; but there is a rival from Gotham in Sussex. Still nothing to solidify this claim.

There were about 45 other villages in England and one in Wales who had their own Gotham cycle of tales. These tales were re-published over time and then exported to America by Washington Irvine who created the title of Gotham City (a city of fools) of his native New York in his Salmagundi, 1807; which of course developed into Gotham City of Batman.

In the Middle Ages in England the term Fool was an archetypal figure who, through his apparent foolishness, possesses wisdom and a state of near-divinity. The Divine Fool could say things to royalty no one else could.

The Fool would wear a hat which had goat horns on it, hence the jester's cap. The wearing of horns was linked to the Fool.

From mediaeval times until the 17th century licensed fools or jesters were commonly kept at court (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable). They were also frequently in the retinue of wealthy nobles to keep them entertained or to ward off depression.

Most nations have some locality renowned for fools: Phrygia as the fools' home of Asia Minor, Abdera of the Thracians, Boeotia of the Greeks, Nazareth* of the ancient Jews (popularised by the Pharisees), Swabia of the Germans, etc.

*To call someone a Nazarine was to call them a fool. The divine fool who was born at a place known as 'The House of Bread' in a cave sanctuary dedicated to Adonis was referred to as 'the Nazarine' -- here is an example of the derogatory tales that emerged to ridicule Jesus Christ the Nazarine. Yet the foolishness of God was greater than the wise men of the Torah.

The word “jester” comes from Egypt, a reference to an entertainment in the courts of the pharoahs, wherein dwarves danced for the amusement of the royalty. “Jester” is a rough translation of the phrase “dancing dwarves from the land of the spirits.” The belief that dwarves came from the “land of the spirits” is key to the concept of the fool, a figure imagined as “not all there,” somehow only partially in this world while still connected to another.

As the jester/fool apparently retains some connection to another world, he is believed to have insights directly gathered from a sphere of knowledge the rest of us cannot know. This is related to a medieval word “oncunnynge,” from which we get our word “cunning.” Oncunnynge (applied to fools) is an intuition that is superior to logic, an understanding of truth that the rational mind is incapable of. Again, like the Egyptian jester, the medieval fool was perceived as someone who, in a world ruled by logic and order, understood reality on another level.

The medieval world was rich with customs and holidays for fools. The Feast of Fools (an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) was derived from the Roman saturnalia when masters and servants would exchange places for a few days. The Catholic church took over the Feast of Fools (12th to 15th century), calling it the Feast of the Epiphany, but retained the same role-reversal theme, so that in community celebrations, peasants reversed roles with the aristocracy, priests and the pope himself. Multi-day celebrations included the election of a mock-pope (called the Lord of Misrule), who made outrageous laws and ruled his mock court in an atmosphere of chaos and sensory celebration. The Catholic church continued to suborn pagan celebrations. The Roman’s Lupercalia (whose riotous celebrations are imitated in the first scene of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar) was transformed into Mardi Gras, a favorite holiday of Central and South America when African culture met Catholicism.

Mardi Gras was also an offshoot of the European carnevale (still celebrated in such Italian cities as Venice), an elaborate, sensual celebration of the wordly and the erotic (carnival’s root word, “carne,” means flesh). In a variation of the role-reversal theme, during carnevale and Mardi Gras, participants would wear elaborate costumes and masks, allowing them to take on personas far removed from their daily selves and indulge in undisciplined behavior they normally would or could not. As with the Feast of Fools’ Lord of Misrule, Mardi Gras elected a king who symbolized the chaotic and sensual demolishing of order. When New Orleans--a Caribbean city highly influenced by the cross-culturization of Central America, Africa and France--began its own Mardi Gras celebrations in the early 1800s, they took up the behavior that flourishes today in the French Quarter every March. Mardi Gras’s relation to the Catholic church is found in its name, “fat Tuesday,” a reference to the last day to indulge sins of the flesh before the advent of lent the succeeding Wednesday. It is in the midst of these Medieval and Renaissance celebrations that the fool flourished, both in the courts and among the peasantry. He symbolized the unleashing of counter-cultural behavior in a world that was becoming increasingly ruled by science, his antics a deliberate snubbing of culture, poise and manners amongst people who took themselves too seriously.

One of the greatest madmen in literature, Miguel de Cervantes had Don Quixote offer the finest insight of a fool: “Perhaps the greatest madness is not in failing to see things as they are, but in failing to see things as they should be.” (uplifted from

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